The Pinyon Pine
I take a deep breath. Enjoying the scent of these native trees. When we came to this area, I wanted native trees because they would withstand the drought. When we first planted them, we watered well and they became established. A couple of years later, when water became more scarce, our trees got less water, but that fits their nature. And they've done very well. They're much taller than I am! Each spring, I notice their new growth and it's always a pleasure.
The slightly curved needles are one to two inches long. There's a scaly structure (properly called a sheath) at the base of each pair of needles. This leads to a basic distinction: if the needles come one at a time the tree is in the category of spruce or fir. If the needles come in clusters, we recognize it as a pine tree. And the pine trees are sorted out by the number of needles in each cluster.
This small, bushy tree occurs throughout the southwest, most often in the company of Utah Juniper. These two shrubby trees comprise a pinyon-juniper woodland which covers 75,000 square miles: reaching from Wyoming to New Mexico, through California and Arizona and into Mexico. This is the forest-type of the southwest. The pinyon-pine is so significant that entire volumes have been written about it: my favorite book is "Pinyon Pine: A Natural History" by Ronald M. Lanner. In his work, he discusses the trees' importance to the indigenous people of the arid southwest. The pinyon was to tribes just as the buffalo was to the people. These small trees provided building materials and tools, fuel and shelter. The pitch could be made into glue, dyes, waterproofing and varnish. The inner bark served as emergency food or could be made into clothing and bedding. The needles made teas for a host of ailments.
But of course, the major item was food: the nuts provide significant vitamins, minerals, and about 2,800 calories per pound (roughly about as much as a pound of chocolate). The nuts can be stored for future use. But of greater consequence, the nuts take two years-plus to mature (there's still debate about that length of time!) So the crop was predictable! The tribes could become agriculturists.
And the pinyon jay and the tree have a symbiotic relationship: The jay collects the pine nuts, eating only the best. The best of the uneaten nuts are stored in the forest litter to sprout into better trees. The bird gets fed and the trees' quality increases.